Abstract: Interview with Alan LIPMAN about his life and how he became an architect. He describes himself as an architect sociologist and an anarchist.
Why did you study architecture.
"My father said I had to get an education, something he'd never had, and keep out of the army. So I went to Wits to study engineering. I hated it. After six months a friend and I ran off to join the navy. My father came to fetch me and thrashed me in front of everyone. The navy was equally annoyed at having their time wasted. He said I had to do something, even if it was a trade, which was quite a concession for Jewish pride. In the army I met Fred Berry who said architecture was for me. I studied at Wits with Wim SWAAN, Monty SACK and Pancho GUEDES. Carl PINFOLD, Betty SPENCE's husband, lectured me in final year and was inspirational."
Alan Lipman – Architect Sociologist, he calls himself. But then also he has many other appellations – exile, returnee, ex-communist, atheist, academic, journalist, utopian, husband, father, doting grandfather.
His snippets of biography make for entertaining listening.
"We had a house in Saxonwold. My father, Alfred Lipman, inherited the fortune, made by my grandfather who arrived here aged twelve after being sent out from Germany to Britain to escape being conscripted into the Ulange. He was a smous but eventually owned almost all of Harrison Street including the brothels and the pubs. I have been rebelling against the Jo'burg Jewish alt-bourgeoisie ever since."
Not only them, but the establishment at large.
"I somewhere still have my banning order signed 'Your obedient servant, C R Swart Minister of Justice'."
That was after the banning of the South African Communist Party in 1952, from which he resigned after the 1956 invasion of Hungary.
"When you leave the party, you're like a lapsed Catholic. They think you're somehow sick."
Being banned severely impaired his professional life. The special branch warned potential clients against using his services. Ismail Meer, not intimidated, had him to design his home. He could not teach, and his contributions to the South African Architectural Record were submitted for scrutiny before publication. He had his home searched. The then Sergeant Coetzee (later to become head of BOSS) took each book off his shelf and shook it out. When he reached his collection of Leipold and Marais - "a strange sort of genius" – he could almost hear "Snaakse blerrie communis Jood" and probably Coetzee reciprocally "Strange bloody Afrikaans cop". They started to discuss Afrikaans poetry. "Under other circumstances we might have been friends".
"I had to get out."
MEIRING - then head of Pretoria School - "who was a complete and utter gentleman" wrote a letter to the Justice Department recommending he be allowed to study towards a PhD abroad. He was given an exit visa and his wife and children detained in South Africa until the authorities had satisfied themselves that he was not engaged in any anti-apartheid activities. When he told Prof Dewi-Prys Thomas, Head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Wales in Cardiff where Alan was teaching, that he intended doing a PhD, he said "What on earth for? Only those continental blokes do that. Gentlemen in Britain don't do PhD's". In 1975 it eventually materialised as 'Aspects of a professional ideology of architects: social engineering and design theory.' This made Alan a rare breed, one of the first of the architect sociologists. He was sought out in the communist bloc of eastern Europe as well as the east coast of the USA. Eventually home-sickness got him as close as Kitwe, Zambia. When Walter Sisulu was released they corresponded, and he wrote "Come". A wistful: "You can admire Nelson Mandela, but you love Walter Sisulu."
Has South African Architecture had its own Truth and Reconciliation?
"No, I think we've never escaped [the past]. The Institute has never searched itself and replied. Never acknowledged the advantages nor apologised for the advantage it took."
As whites we are not prepared to take sufficient responsibility for our past and present advantage. Many whites – English speakers – have never sufficiently accepted in their minds that they live in Africa. That's why we have all this 'Tuscan' and 'Cornish' drek."
Is this so of the younger white generation?
"I despair of their complacency"
And young blacks?
"They are ignorant of their past – the struggle and what it meant."
So what's to be done?
"If I had the answer I'd be a guru – beware of gurus, they're dangerous!"
What are you then?
And how do anarchists teach architecture?
"Read Alexander Tzonis' 'towards a non oppressive environment'. You can't change architecture until you change society. William Morris offers to me personally a humane socialism, a humane democracy."
And what does architecture of this society look like?
"Anything humans construct contain some of their dreams and embedded in those dreams are elements of human relationships – honour, trust, and suchlike – which suggest how human beings might live. And this is constructed with love. As Morris says 'there was a time in history when humans enjoyed their labour. It’s not toil. I've done it with my hands.' There's something of me in that object, as Arthur Miller writes in 'Death of a salesman' 'There's more of you in that front porch than all the sales you've made in your life.' If you don't live with dignity you're half alive. When you wake up at four in the morning and you don’t own your own dignity you’re done for. That's what I hate about business. It's not business - we need it. But it's what it does to business people. That's why I like architecture. It expresses the best of human aspirations. I am a Utopian. I believe it is within the capacity of human nature to create a decent society. Buildings embody human relationships. The buildings of Carlo de Carlo – an anarchist – exude humanity."
So what's you're advice?
"Trust humanity – in the end they will look after their own – themselves and their fellow human beings. Society comes before politics. Most governments don't trust 'the people'. They worship the abstraction."
Do you recommend that students be exposed to anarchy?
"Anarchy and everything else."
What does the architecture of anarchy look like?
"Can't answer that. We as free active agents must work things out together. It's a long drawn out business which doesn't suit modern mechanised society. But then modern mechanised society must be made to suit it!"
What are your aspirations?
"To be with my grandson for the 'Jesuit period'."
"We should talk to our students like this."